Tough Boots to Fill?

In my opinion, and it is only my opinion, Argyle have just sold the best centre-back they had. 

Looking at social media after Niall Canavan was sold to Bradford for an undisclosed fee this week, I appreciate that my opinion is not one that is universally agreed with. Our fans seem to be very divided on the abilities of the Yorkshire-born Irishman, with some agreeing with myself, but others saying that he was barely even League Two standard, a liability at our current level, and slower than Dominic Blizzard (if that’s even physically possible).

I’ll elaborate on my opening statement. Do I think Canavan is a brilliant player for this level? No. Is he as good as Sonny Bradley or Zak Vyner? Of course not. Do I realise that Ryan Lowe had little choice in trying to keep him, given that it appears the defender was very keen to make this move to his boyhood club happen? Absolutely. However, do I wish that he was more widely recognised by the Green Army as a perfectly capable League One footballer? Very much so.

Some seem to want to focus on the very occasional howler that Canavan had when playing for Argyle. Admittedly, as shockers go, his performances against Peterborough in 2018 and Rochdale in 2020 were right down with the very worst I’ve seen from an Argyle player. However, I can forgive any player having a game like this, if: it’s only once in a blue moon, and if the rest of the time he regularly puts in seven out of ten performances. For me, NC did this far more often than not.

What were Canavan’s main qualities at centre-back? Well, whilst he wasn’t outstanding in any area, I think pretty much every part of his game was good. He won a decent proportion of his aerial duels, and was very capable at winning tackles and marking too. His composure was great – occasionally he’d worry us by looking a little too composed on the ball, but it was actually a calming influence that we needed, especially since the appointment of Ryan Lowe and our style of playing out from the back. Linked to this, his actual passing, often unfairly maligned, was actually reasonable for a lower-league centre-back – again, not quite Zak Vyner but certainly not Guy Branston. Finally, as has become clearer to see(hear) since the behind-closed-doors games began, his leadership and organisational qualities have become more prevalent – in short, Canavan is one loud so-and-so on the football pitch.

What justified my opinions in the previous paragraph, and cemented my belief that he is a perfectly capable League 1 defender, are the statistics comparing him to our other centre-backs during his time at the club. Now this may appear a silly exercise to some, and it is a perfectly credible opinion to say that Argyle haven’t had one single good centre-back since Sonny Bradley left in 2018. However, when you see the gulf between Canavan and the others in some of the seasons, it does become difficult to dispute that he was at the very least a competent League One footballer. Let’s start with this season so far:

Goals conceded per 90 minutes playing at centre-back – 2020/21

  • Canavan  1.42
  • Watts 1.69
  • Aimson  1.72
  • Wootton 1.72
  • Opoku 1.82

I will admit, this stat is a little misleading, as it is only half a season, and Canavan has played a higher proportion of matches at home and against lower-ranked sides than say Opoku has. However, we keep a clean sheet nearly 3 times more often with Canavan in the side compared to when he isn’t, at a quite incredible rate of 2.8 games per clean sheet. Whoever you’re up against, that’s a very strong record.

Goals conceded per 90 minutes playing at centre-back – 2019/20

  • McFadzean 0.78
  • Sawyer 0.96
  • Wootton 0.97
  • Canavan 1.01
  • Aimson 1.56
  • Josh Grant 1.75

Well, it looks like the above shows Canavan up a bit, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t say so. Callum McFadzean is included in the above list, but he played so few minutes at centre-back (345, almost all of them at home), it’s difficult to credit him as being our true best defender last season. Wootton, Canavan and Sawyer formed a brilliant partnership that conceded 17 goals in 24 games together – that’s a better record than the often-heralded Nelson-McHugh-Hartley trio under John Sheridan, and with less midfield protection than the latter defence had too. All three of them performed extremely well in 2019/20, with Canavan at the heart of it – we conceded 1.6 goals per game when he wasn’t playing, 0.6 more than when he was.

Goals conceded per 90 minutes when playing at centre-back – 2018/19

  • Canavan 1.34
  • Wootton 1.55
  • Edwards 1.70
  • Songo’o 1.77
  • P Grant 1.85
  • Sawyer 2.42
  • Jones 3.02

Saving the best ’til last. Some people seemed to decide after our calamitous relegation in 2018/19, that all of the centre-backs we used that season weren’t up to it. I don’t believe this to be true at all. Edwards and Canavan showed flashes of having a reasonable partnership forming, especially in January as we put together a run of four consecutive wins. It didn’t quite happen after that, but as the above shows, we would probably have been better off sticking with them rather than chopping and changing as Derek Adams did. The with/without stat I mentioned above for 2019/20 is even more remarkable for 18/19. With Canavan = 1.3 conceded per 90 (as shown above). Without him = 2.3. 46 more goals shipped over the course of a season.

Of course, as I alluded to, the above statistics aren’t foolproof. They don’t take into account quality of opposition, home vs away, who was playing in goal or in midfield to offer protection to the defence. But it is difficult to argue with the overall trend and the fact that for 3 years out of 3 when he’s been here, Canavan has been part of our best defence. It is also difficult to argue (the main reason for this article), that we need a quality replacement to upgrade the team – not just any old League 1 defender.

And that brings us to a summary. Not only did Canavan individually do well, those with/without stats suggest that he was a real leader and an organiser of the defensive unit – something which a lot of us believe Argyle need more of right now. It looks like we’ve lost not just the best centre-back we had on our books, but the best organiser too. I really hope Ryan Lowe can pull something out of the bag before the end of January, because if we sign anything less than a good League 1 centre-back with organisational qualities, then we’ve got weaker – not stronger. And if we want to stay clear of relegation trouble come May, stronger is definitely what we need to be.

Argyle’s best team grab elusive victory

Plymouth Argyle put their best team out on the field and won their first league game in eight attempts. That more or less tells the full story. I’ll spare you the thousand-or-so words of analysis of the victory over Milton Keynes, and leave you with that simple fact we’ve all been crying out for across the last few weeks.

Ok, I’ll go on a bit more – I just can’t help myself. In a surprise to absolutely nobody at all, having their strongest side on the field led to Argyle looking an awful lot better at both ends of the field. The back three of Kelland Watts, Niall Canavan and Will Aimson, surely now unanimously agreed to be the best option at the back, made Argyle look considerably more solid. On top of that, Ryan Hardie and Luke Jephcott’s combined play was back to its fluent best, with the former scoring with a well-taken finish that’ll surely boost his confidence immensely.

It’s been a tough time supporting Argyle across the last month or so. But this win could well prove vital – let’s hope the Greens can build from here.

Defensive solidity prioritised

In recent weeks, Ryan Lowe has regularly opted for Jerome Opoku in the centre of his back three. And it’s easy to see why the Argyle manager has a soft spot for the Fulham loanee. The way he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to play out from the back makes him a very “Lowe type” player. However, his defensive deficiencies have been unavoidable. To say he resembled a rabbit in headlights at times would be kind, and despite all of the good he can bring, Argyle couldn’t persist.

Against Milton Keynes, Opoku’s presence wouldn’t be necessary. All season, they have been a side who have kept the ball well without creating much, so attempting to go toe-to-toe with a possession-based game would hardly have been wise. Rather, Argyle simply needed to have enough solidity in their defence to ensure their opponents couldn’t use their copious possession to threaten.

As such, lining up with Watts, Canavan and Aimson made a lot of sense. Whether each represents a good option at this level in their own right is up for debate, but their inclusion together is certainly the best Argyle can muster. And they delivered on Saturday. Will Aimson in particular stood out, winning 80% of his aerial duels across the 90 minutes, and whilst the pass completion stats were not what we’ve come to expect from Argyle’s defence, they managed the basics to ensure just their third league clean sheet of the season.

Credit must also go to Argyle’s midfield, particularly Lewis MacLeod and Panutche Camara, for providing a level of protection to the defence that we simply haven’t seen in recent weeks. MacLeod clearly seems to be back to full fitness, and managed to one-up Aimson by winning 100% of his aerial battles on Saturday. Meanwhile, Camara was at his effervescent best, winning 9 tackles (4 more than anyone else on the field) to provide Argyle a platform on the counter. It’s just another example of the solidity provided by the setup. Lowe could have opted for the more “ball playing” options of Tyrese Fornah and Ben Reeves, but solidity was correctly prioritised, and the result duly followed.

Hardie back in the goals

Ryan Hardie has come in for a fair bit of stick lately. Not necessarily for his build-up play, which has remained at a high level, but for his finishing. Before Saturday he’d only managed to score one goal all season, a paltry figure considering the chances he’s had to find the net. Against Bristol Rovers, for instance, he really ought to have got himself on the scoresheet at least once, and probably twice. The fact his goal tally has been dwarfed by Jephcott has only emphasised Hardie wayward shooting so far this season.

With that in mind, how lovely was it to see Hardie find the target on Saturday afternoon? To not only score, but score the winner in a vital match in front of the Devonport End has the potential to deliver him a huge boost. It’s cliched to say he’ll start banging them in now – that’s not guaranteed – but from being left wondering where his next goal may come from, Argyle’s number 9 managed to demonstrate the quality he still possesses at such a crucial time.

It was such a well taken goal, too. Good work from Jephcott and particularly Joe Edwards on the right gave Hardie the chance, but he still had plenty to do. A wonderful touch on his right foot took the ball around defender George Williams, before Hardie produced the finish of a striker bang in form to find the bottom corner. Goal drought? Forgotten.

One would like to think he’ll take the momentum from this game into the remainder of the Christmas period. We thought that may happen after he broke his duck for the season against Wigan in October with another lovely finish, but it didn’t quite materialise. It’s all the more important this time – a firing Hardie would be a key cog in Lowe’s Argyle machine to spark a recovery from the recent run of form.

Have Argyle turned a corner?

Saturday’s result was crucial. Had Argyle not found a way to win, it’d have been eight without tasting victory heading into a tough trip to Charlton on Boxing Day. And it’s sparked hope that the Greens have now put the worst behind them in this campaign. So have they turned a corner?

It’s probably too early to tell for sure. As mentioned, the next game on Boxing Day will be a tough one, and a defeat has the potential to take Argyle right back to square one. Argyle may have beaten Charlton away from home in the cup, but the Addicks will no doubt be a different beast this time around.

There’s also the question of how much we’re actually able to take from this game. Milton Keynes, for their part, are far from the best team in this division. Yes, Argyle may have managed to keep a clean sheet against a side fairly useless with the ball, but there are plenty of tougher battles to come. Yes, Hardie may have been able to score at the weekend, but he needs to add plenty more to that in order make his second loan spell a success.

But, as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s certainly much more refreshing to assess how Argyle will build on a victory, rather than analysing how they can respond from defeat. All good runs of form must start somewhere – why can’t this one start with a narrow victory on a cold winter’s afternoon against Milton Keynes?

Argyle’s issues laid bare once more

Well, here we go again.

You’ll have to forgive my tendency to resemble a broken record during these times. I’d love to be able to explore some new topics in these pieces, but we are beginning to see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Plymouth Argyle have now lost five league games in a row, and after around ten minutes against Bristol Rovers it seemed inevitable that the dire run was set to continue.

Admittedly, that may seem like a little overreaction. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat was far from Argyle’s worst performance of the season, though the displays against Fleetwood and Rochdale don’t exactly make that a major achievement. Indeed, had Luke Jephcott taken his one big chance as he so often does, and Ryan Hardie managed to stick one of his many opportunities into the net, we may have bene telling a very different story. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

And in truth, it wasn’t Argyle’s attack that was the problem on Saturday. When you concede three goals, you can never expect to win games with regularity. When those goals are terrible ones to concede, the problems clearly run even deeper than once thought. That’s was the case with Argyle on Saturday, and it means big questions hang over the squad. In truth, they have for quite a few weeks.

What exactly happens in training?

All three of Rovers’ goals could be considered “straight from the training ground” efforts. Each one of them came from a set piece, and they were all totally avoidable from an Argyle point of view. It does lead one to wonder what defensive work actually takes place in Argyle’s training sessions.

Let’s take the two goals from corners as an example. On both occasions, Argyle decided to exclusively use man-to-man marking in the penalty area. Now that mightn’t seem like an inherently bad thing until you consider the responsibilities it puts on the players. One-on-one, Argyle’s defenders had to be experts at winning aerial battles to make the method of defending effective. Put simply, they’re not.

The first goal is a prime example. As soon as Alfie Kilgour got the run on Jerome Opoku, he more or less had a free header on the Argyle goal. I remarked at the time that Opoku didn’t cover himself in glory, and I maintain this is true, but he was hardly helped by the system. Had there been an element of zonal marking, another player may have been able to steal a march and win the ball, or at least put a little more pressure on Kilgour’s header. Setting up to defend the corner the way Argyle did was simply asking for trouble.

A lack of zonal marking also contributed to Rovers’ second goal, for different reasons. This time, the first ball was only partially cleared, and Luke McCormick (heh) swept up the pieces to double the hosts’ advantage. And it was always likely to be a Rovers player who got to the ball first. With man-to-man marking deployed Argyle’s defenders, understandably, would have been focusing on their designated attackers, allowing all of Rovers’ players to watch the ball and react quickest. Unsurprisingly, they did. Had somebody been in that zone to clear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Zonal marking isn’t a magic bullet – far from it. In fact, most teams opt for a hybrid approach, incorporating aspects of both man marking and zonal marking to deal with set pieces. Such an approach would have aided Argyle immensely on Saturday. Can we trust Ryan Lowe, a former striker and famously attacking coach, to implement this on the training ground? I’m beginning to wonder.

Where is the protection?

Take the best defence in the world, and they’ll still find life difficult if they have to defend with no midfield protection for 90 minutes. That difficulty will be exemplified if they have to defend as a back three rather than a back four. Argyle’s defence, it’s fair to say, isn’t the best in the world, so the lack of midfield protection being provided currently is a serious concern.

Tyrese Fornah is the main culprit here, but again he’s not helped by the system Lowe deploys. As the “1” in the 3-1-4-2, much of the defensive responsibility, particularly when the opposition launch a counter, rests on his shoulders. He doesn’t seem cut out for it at all. He regularly finds himself ten or fifteen yards further upfield that necessary, and that results in acres of space being left behind him. We saw Fleetwood, for example, take advantage of that very early on, and Rovers again were given far too much of the pitch to operate in without pressure this weekend.

Fornah seems to be suffering the same way we saw Yann Songo’o suffer in 2018/19. Neither are bad players in their own right – Fornah picked out a superb pass on his weaker foot in the second half to demonstrate his ability on the ball – but neither have been played to their strengths for large portions of their time at Home Park. It’s seen the same pattern emerge on both occasions: a complete lack of protection for an already shaky defence.

Argyle’s defence isn’t great. The protection afforded to them is inadequate. The results? Obvious.

How big are the issues?

I don’t want to overreact. Argyle have shown across this season that they have the tools to compete. This is an awful run of form, of course, but that doesn’t mean Argyle have suddenly become a bad side. There are issues that need resolving, and I’m very happy to concede that. But it’s not as if Argyle aren’t capable of doing just that, and still making a success of this campaign.

Still, the leadership void at the back needs resolving, and it may well take until the January transfer window before that issue can be put to bed. But the defence could still be improved by bringing in those most competent in the air, with Niall Canavan a prime candidate. I note that Argyle’s best back three (in my view at least) of Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Canavan were again not given a chance together this weekend.

Argyle should be able to solve the midfield issue straight away. Lewis MacLeod being back to full fitness will be a great help, and providing he is at 100% he really ought to start against Crewe on Tuesday night in Fornah’s position. But if not, Lowe can still make things work with Fornah in the side. Giving him a partner by subtly changing to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 would give Argyle’s the double benefit of solidifying the midfield whilst retaining Lowe’s preferred back three, minimising the upheaval in the process.

But the issues, whilst solvable, are serious. It certainly feels as though how he responds to this run will be the making of Lowe. Derek Adams failed to solve Argyle’s problems two years ago, despite having the tools to do so, and it ultimately cost the Greens their place in League One, and Adams his job. Lowe will need to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes to ensure his time at Argyle doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.

Do Plymouth Argyle need a new defence?

Every now and then you get one of those games that just leaves you confused. Yes, there may be a little bit of sadness there, but the overriding emotion the day after such a performance is closer to “what…what just happened?”

Plymouth Argyle’s 4-0 defeat at home to Rochdale was one of those occasions. OK, Argyle’s form wasn’t exactly the best heading into the game, but it certainly seemed on Saturday that they’d put that to one side following a solid performance and win over Lincoln. Plus, we’d all have been forgiven for thinking that Argyle’s season had reached its nadir with the 5-1 defeat against Fleetwood last weekend. And yet, here we are.

It was a game that led to renewed calls for the Greens to go through a complete defensive overhaul. And this time, I’m finding it hard to argue against doing just that.

The individuals

Argyle’s back line against Rochdale, to a man, were terrible. Granted, they were different levels of terrible, but terrible nonetheless. Kelland Watts was probably the least culpable of the three, and his passing was diabolical. Add in the fact that he was caught out completely for the first goal trying to play his man offside, and you get an idea of how horrific Argyle’s defending was on the day.

We also need to talk about Scott Wootton. Up until the mountain of first half stoppage time, he was actually doing alright. Not well, of course, but alright. He’d cut out a pass well at 2-0 to stop Rochdale getting their third a little earlier than they did, and generally defended with at least some level of competency. And then, as half time approached, he saw Jimmy Keohane’s weak header travelling towards the bottom corner and just…let it.

I’m writing this around 24 hours after it first happened, and it still shocks me. Yes, there was a mix up with goalkeeper Mike Cooper, who was no saint himself on Tuesday night, but for an experienced professional defender not to instinctively boot the ball away is just criminal. It’s not the first error we’ve ever seen Wootton make – of course it isn’t – but it’s surely the worst looking. As I say, I still find it unbelievable to watch.

And then there’s Niall Canavan. I’ve been pushing for Canavan to start in the centre of defence for a little while. Cue egg over my face. I’ve already covered this in yesterday’s player ratings, and I’m not paid enough I don’t have the time to repeat myself, so I’ll just let the last article do the talking.

Contrary to popular belief, playing to the whistle isn’t the first thing kids are taught when they start playing football. But yes, by the time they become highly paid professionals, they should be aware that you can’t just stop playing whenever you feel like it. Niall Canavan, inexplicably, failed at that very objective against Rochdale.

 

Was the ball out of play for the visitors’ second goal? Maybe. The perspective from every camera Argyle had in operation made it impossible to tell. But Canavan assuming it was going to be called was scandalous. He wasn’t the only man at fault in the omnishambles that followed, but had he decided not to suddenly have the night off, the issue would have been stopped at source.

It’s hugely frustrating. In the past I’ve spoken about how the errors may iron themselves out with a little more match sharpness. But these aren’t little errors, these are the absolute basics. And if they can’t manage those, we may as well pack in any hopes of the play offs straight away.

A lack of protection

One thing I have noticed in the deconstruction of Tuesday’s proceedings is the comparison of the defence this season to the last time Argyle were in League One. That year, 2018/19, saw Argyle relegated having conceded 80 goals across the campaign. The defence came in for plenty of criticism that year, and the fact that many of the same personnel are still around is not lost on some.

I’m cautious of that comparison. This site has in particular documented the inadequacies in Argyle’s midfield during Derek Adams’ last season at Home Park, and to put all of the blame on a defence that was left completely exposed for most of the year is unfair. Wootton was shown up but Canavan, for instance, certainly wasn’t.

There is an argument that we’re seeing similar this time around. Tyrese Fornah, for all he offers on the ball, doesn’t seem to have a clue out of possession. As the deepest lying midfielder in Lowe’s system, he simply has to be on hand to cut out the passing avenues for opponents on the break, and gobbling up second balls when required. In general, and particularly on Tuesday night, he’s managed neither. We’ve seen more of it from Panutche Camara in a more advanced position, which tells you all you need to know.

Look at how weak he was for Rochdale’s goal. With the ball bobbling around, loose in the opposition’s half, the defensive midfield player ought to be taking authority and making the it his. Fornah, however, was turned so easily by Stephen Humphrys, suddenly found himself out of position, and Rochdale had the ball in the back of Argyle’s net within seconds. It was a common theme.

Fornah’s performance certainly didn’t help. The defence were the main culprits on Tuesday night – of that there is no doubt. But when you know you’re lining up with error prone players in your back line, giving them more to do isn’t the most sensible idea.

So, do Argyle need a new defence?

I have to be honest; I’ve been as close as ever to answering a simple “yes” to that question. And I certainly wouldn’t mind if Lowe did decide to dip into the January transfer market for a few defensive reinforcements.

Believe it or not, however, there is still reason to be hopeful. Consider that a back three of Aimson, Canavan and Watts, probably Argyle’s best on balance, have only played together twice this season. Should they be given a run in the team, with Wootton, Jerome Opoku and the long-lost Gary Sawyer providing backup when necessary, Argyle may be able to find at least some sort of solidity. Granted, there’s no guarantee there, but it would surely be worth a try with things currently as they are.

There are also options for Argyle to solidify their performance in defence within midfield. Frankly, playing Fornah on his own in the deep position has failed. Therefore a path back for Lewis MacLeod, who put in some good performances there when he wasn’t injured, may well be there once he’s recovered. Until then, why not try a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2, as we’ve seen from Lowe in the past, to allow Fornah to have a little more support in the middle? It’d surely help.

In all honesty, it’s hard to be positive. There are plenty of questions now Argyle have lost three in a row in the league, and they need rapid answers. If Argyle line up the same way against Ipswich this Saturday, confidence levels will hardly be high.

Let’s hope it can be sorted, whether that means a change of tactic or a new defence entirely.

Player Ratings: Plymouth Argyle 0 Rochdale 4

Plymouth Argyle went down to a shocking 4-0 defeat at home to Rochdale, ending the unbeaten run in dramatic fashion. After no losses at Home Park since New Year’s Day, this was some way to start. The game was virtually beyond us by half-time, going in three down. The second half was a bit better but not notably so. Whilst we did create some chances, we were brutally picked apart on the counter and made a catalogue of ridiculous individual errors in defence.

Starting XI

Mike Cooper – GK, 3

It was once again a disapointing evening for Argyle’s young keeper who seems to be fast estabishing himself as a player of feast of famine. He didn’t do a LOT wrong. If we’re being charitable, we could even say that he did well for the first goal, forcing Beasley to a tight angle following the initial defensive mix-up. That said, he really didn’t do a long right either. His kicking was unmemorable and I can’t actually remember a save he made. Most of the time, his hands were only on the ball to pick it out of the net.

This is before we mention his decision to inexplicably play tiki-taka football with Byron Moore on the edge of his own penalty area, leading to the fourth goal. Moore was dispossessed but it was a ridiculous pass by Cooper to go short in the situation. Moore had a man on him and could have done nothing other than, at best, boot the ball out of play.

Scott Wootton – RCB, 3

Truth be told, there was a time that I was willing to cut Wootton some slack tonight. Argyle were 2-0 down after some kamikaze defending contributed to both goals. But of all of them, Wootton was probably least culpable. He also did produce a couple of excellent blocks to prevent the scoreline looking even uglier.

Then, and there’s no way of making this sound better, he saw the ball heading into the bottom corner and just…let it go in. Let me repeat: he just watched the ball go into the goal. Despite having the means to deal with it comfortably he decided, and I need to drill this in because it still shocks me, to watch the ball nestle into the bottom corner while thinking “yep, this is fine.” Honestly, he was an active hinderance to defending the danger. Had he not been there, at least he wouldn’t have distracted his own goalkeeper.

Cue a half time substitution, and another clanger to add to the collection.

Niall Canavan – CB, 2

Contrary to popular belief, playing to the whistle isn’t the first thing kids are taught when they start playing football. But yes, by the time they become highly paid professionals, they should be aware that you can’t just stop playing whenever you feel like it. Niall Canavan, inexplicably, failed at that very objective against Rochdale.

Was the ball out of play for the visitors’ second goal? Maybe. The perspective from every camera Argyle had in operation made it impossible to tell. But Canavan assuming it was going to be called was scandalous. He wasn’t the only man at fault in the omnishambles that followed, but had he decided not to suddenly have the night off, the issue would have been stopped at source.

As an advocate for Canavan starting up until this game, this was not a night to remember for me or the Irishman.

Kelland Watts – LCB, 4

Uhh. Not a memorable night for the Newcastle loanee, which I have quickly discovered is a running theme. He was completely caught out for the first goal when he tried to play the offside trap and failed miserably, and his defending for the fourth (I still can’t believe I’m writing that after a home game against Rochdale) left a fair bit to be desired.

What really grated in this one though was his profligacy going forward. Honestly, how many times did he give the ball away during his time on the field. Well, I could probably look it up and find out, but after watching 90 minutes of that I don’t have the will to look up the stats just yet. But it was a lot, is my point.

Against a side as good on the counter as Rochdale, with a defence as hapless as Argyle’s, that was suicide.

Tyrese Fornah – DCM, 3

Tyrese Fornah seems absolutely fine on the ball. Perhaps that’s what makes Lowe like him so much. We saw as much with Jerome Opoku starting in the centre of defence to start attacks. However, much like we’ve seen with Opoku, Fornah is failing in his primary role in this system: defending.

In his position, and particularly against good counter attacking sides, Fornah needs to be the player cutting out attacks and stopping the simple passing avenues for the opposition. Against Rochdale, he almost seemed to do the opposite. He was so weak in the tackle when attempting to stop the first, and on many occasions he was nowhere to be seen for the second balls he ought to be eager to mop up.

I’m happy to be proved wrong in the coming weeks, but if Argyle are looking for this season’s Josh Grant behind the midfield, Fornah isn’t the man.

Joe Edwards – RWB, 7. Player of the Match

I can only assume Lowe recognised the game was already lost at half time, and he wanted to trial something new. Because bringing off Joe Edwards at half time when he was the only attacking threat Argyle possessed for the first 45 minutes would be mesmerically stupid otherwise.

Much like Saturday, Argyle looked most dangerous down the right in the absence of Danny Mayor. Edwards was a key cog in that, and almost set up Luke Jephcott for an equaliser soon after the game restarted after the first half injury delay. It goes without saying that this wasn’t as good as his Lincoln performance, particularly in defence, but he still stood out amongst the dirge in the first half.

I sincerely hope Lowe was just giving his right wing back a rest for the second half.

Conor Grant – RCM, 7

Grant, alongside Edwards, is the only other player to come out of this omnishambles with any credit. He was quiet in the first half and missed a half-decent chance for what would have been 1-2, fairly early in the second half. That said, he did really grow into the game as it went on. His best spell, curiously, was when he was moved into the wing-back role just after half-time.

He got up and down the line well in this position, ensuring that Argyle’s left hand side was secure. As well as this, he did also deliver some decent crosses into the box. Unfortunately, nobody had their finishing boots on to get on the end of them.

Ben Reeves – LCM, 4

Picture the scene: Argyle kick off the second half needing an Istanbul-style comeback to save the game. Within two minutes of the restart, the ball falls to Ben Reeves on the volley on the edge of the box, just days after he scored a screamer in similar circumstances against Lincoln. Once again he catches the ball on his left foot and sends it…wide. It just wasn’t to be for Reeves tonight.

He was far from the worst player in Green, and his second half performance was enough for me to consider bumping his rating up a little. However, his overall influence (or lack of) was a little problematic. The lack of Mayor in the middle has left a huge creativity void, and thus far Reeves hasn’t been able to fill it. Edwards has been great in the last two games, but he shouldn’t need to be Argyle’s main source of attacks.

Perhaps Reeves will be better alongside Mayor. Will we find out one day?

George Cooper – LWB, 5

George Cooper, with a 5, escapes as one of Argyle’s better players on the day by virtue of not having played much of the game. Yep, that’s how bad it was.

It has been notable in the last couple of games how much he struggles without Danny Mayor alongside him, but we can’t really pass much judgement on that from tonight’s showing. He may have been playing injured from the start – who knows? Hopefully both will be back soon an we’ll be able to see Argyle’s attack at its fluent best.

Frank Nouble – ST, 4

Nouble gets a 4, but it’s certainly closer to a 3 than a 5. In the first half he was very quiet, generally failing to get involved in any of Argyle’s admittedly limited attacking moves. And in the second, when he was involved, he was annoyingly wasteful. He squandered a couple of headers that could have put Argyle back in with a shout, and was barely involved in the creative side of the game.

Credit has to go to him for putting his body about, and still trying to develop openings for his side with his physicality. He was certainly better in the air than he was against Fleetwood last week, for instance. However, that’s hardly an achievement, and tonight certainly wasn’t his game.

Luke Jephcott – ST, 5

Jephcott is an excellent young striker who, all being well, will be hugely beneficial to Argyle’s promotion chances or Argyle’s bank balance one of these days. Maybe both. That said, it wasn’t his day today. He was busy and energetic, like he always did. He got into deadly positions through electric movement, like he always does.

Where he did unusually let himself down was his finishing. Argyle’s best two chances of the game both fell to him at close range. The first one was tapped against the post and the second he couldn’t get a good connection on. You’d usually expect him to finish one or both of those chances. Today, it wasn’t to be.

Substitutes

Byron Moore – LWB/RWB, 4

Moore came on for Cooper, and despite a good run of performances when he was rushed to LWB of part of Argyle’s COVID inspired reshuffle, he was pretty awful today. He replaced the injured Cooper and immediately managed to make a bad situation worse, offering next to no end product. One well delivered cross onto the head of Nouble was the one exception to the rule.

He also has to take a lot of blame for the catastrophe of the fourth goal. Yes, Mike Cooper played him into trouble, but Moore should have put his foot through the ball to clear it. Instead, he too tried to be too cute in his own penalty area and was dispossessed.

Will Aimson – RCB, 4

Aimson came on at half-time for Scott Wootton and, whilst there was some merit in sending a message to the dreadful defence, he was pretty anonymous. He didn’t do loads wrong but his passing was aimless.

He probably would be a five out of ten but he totally missed a chance to clear the ball before the fourth goal, after the Cooper/Watts fiasco. Not good but he’ll still probably return to the team for the Ipswich game, if only by default.

Jerome Opoku – CB, 6

Opoku was the best of the five Argyle centre-backs to play today and he still didn’t play especially well. He’s closer to a 5 than a 7. He didn’t do anything outstanding and there are some questions to be asked about his passing out from the back.

But, he didn’t look like he was playing with a blindfold on and he didn’t make any errors that led directly to goals. That at least is a step above the others.

Ryan Hardie – ST, 4.

I’m getting a bit numb with Hardie at the moment. Usually this season he works very hard, gets in good scoring chances but just can’t find the net. Today, he got in one semi decent area but that was about it and he spent much of the game anonymous, not really making any clear runs or effort to get the ball.

Is it time to ask the question? How long does his blip in form continue to be called a blip? How long before we question if perhaps last season was the blip after all? He needs improvement and he needs it soon. The worry is that nobody can score without Jephcott.

Panutche Camara – CM, 5

Well…he came on, he ran a lot. That’s about it. Certainly none of it appeared to be to great effect. Camara is a good player for us but on days like this, you just have to accept that nearly everyone has had an off day. He missed a good chance for what would have surely been a totally worthless consolation goal in stoppage time. The best you can say is that he got into good positions.

Player Ratings: Plymouth Argyle 2-0 Lincoln

After a very ropey week on the road, Plymouth Argyle got back to winning ways with a bang, beating Lincoln City 2-0 to get into the third round of the FA Cup. The scoring was opened by – who else – Luke Jephcott, heading directly in from a perfect George Cooper corner. Ben Reeves scored Argyle’s second goal in spectacular fashion, striking a Frank Nouble miskick into the top corner of the net on the volley. Argyle created chances in the second half. Whilst the first was quieter, we restricted Lincoln to few serious chances due to a very sturdy backline and were well worthy of the win.

Mike Cooper – GK, 8

A game at Fleetwood that could best be described as ‘error prone’ was followed up by a much improved display at Peterborough and then a performance today that was, if anything, even better. Cooper was largely very impressive against a Lincoln side who were increasingly peppering him with shots as the game went on. He saved everything that came at him, holding onto the vast majority of it. There were, perhaps, a couple of question marks over a couple of the shots in the first half that he could perhaps have held and were instead parried back to the striker.

Even those, he dealt with well. He also proved impressive in his command of area that was strong, knowing when to catch and when to punch. His kicking, one stray miskick aside, continued to be very impressive, often starting Argyle attacks. His use of his hands to distribute was also impressive, always looking for the quick route out of defence whenever he got two hands on the ball. Long may his form continue.

Scott Wootton – RCB, 7.

Given a run in the side once again following a couple of Will Aimson mistakes, Wootton continued to show there’s few better than him for on the ground defender. His aerial duel success may be patchy (albeit, it’s better than it was) but there’s few players I’d trust more to position themselves effectively to cut out an incoming attack. Lincoln barely had any serious chances in the game, largely restricted to long range shots. This was surely in part down to Wootton’s astute reading of the game.

Where he could have done better, as he so often can is his passing. Whilst he’s fine at playing the simple balls out of the back three, he too often executes aimless long passes to nobody in particular. This simply results in the ball coming back to us and it’s an area of his game he can still work on.

Niall Canavan – CB, 9. Player of the Match.

What a difference this guy makes. Surely, now, it is beyond doubt? Argyle are quite simply a better team when Canvan plays. No ifs, no buts. It isn’t just that he’s a better defender than the alternatives for the central man in the back three. I mean, I think he is the best defender for that role. He’s a colossus in the air, winning almost everything that comes his way and he knows exactly when to attack the ball with aplomb.

But more than this, and he showed this against Lincoln, is he makes others around him play better. He communicates where other players should be and organises at set pieces. He brings out the best in those around him. The stats speak for themselves: Argyle concede at a goal every 87 minutes when Canavan plays and a goal every 51 minutes when he doesn’t.

Kelland Watts – LCB, 8.

Another fine game was had by the man who is proving to be an absolute revelation on the left hand side of the defence. Whilst (as stated above!) I believe Canavan to be our best all round defender, I believe Watts to be our best attacking-defender. He executed his core duties brilliantly, a couple of slight errors that crept into his game in recent weeks were nowhere to be seen against Lincoln. He also overlaps well, presenting himself as an extra attacking option whilst ostensibly a centre-back.

One scuffed clearance is the only imperfection that I can think of and perhaps he can consider himself unlucky not to get an even higher score.

Tyreese Fornah – DCM, 6.

Fornah had an unexpectedly good game against Peterborough – after being dropped from the side, he had his best game in an Argyle shirt. He fought and scrapped constantly, not getting dribbled past once. We all hoped it was a positive platform he could build on to really cement his place in the side. He did have a quieter first half, often failing to decide when to press and when to hold off. This sometimes led to him doing neither.

However, the second half saw him look much more like the Fornah was saw on Tuesday night. He was much sharper and his decision making more astute and perhaps this lead to Argyle’s improved second half display. He’s done enough to keep his space for another game, at least.

Joe Edwards – RWB, 9.

I’m prepared to eat humble pie here. Edwards is a player who I didn’t think would make the step up to League One level particularly well. Last season, he was perhaps too often Mr 6 out of 10, getting up and down the line well but to no avail when it came to his end product. However, the game against Lincoln was the latest in a long line of very impressive displays for the greens.

He was constantly getting Argyle moving, the primary source of home attacks in the first half and the second. Additionally, he seems  to have upskilled himself. His passing, never really a strength last time out, was intricate in this game. He linked very well with Conor Grant and the strikers. Only Canavan’s dominant display prevents him getting man of the match.

Conor Grant – RCM, 7.

He was a bit quiet at times, especially in the first half, but he grew into the game as it went on. After a mediocre couple of games, it was good to see Grant look more like the star man we saw in the early days of the season, even if he wasn’t quite back to his best.

His distribution was tidy and he was part of a good joint defensive effort that largely restricted Lincoln to pot shots.

Ben Reeves- LCM, 8.

Reeves had all the good aspects of Grant’s performance made better. Yes, perhaps he could have been busier going forward but his tenacity was much appreciated by his defenders, who had much less to deal with due to the relentless pressing of Reeves in front of them,

And, of course, we can’t go without pointing out his miraculous goal. It fell to him on the volley and he timed it perfectly to whack the ball into the corner of the net, giving Palmer no chance in goal for the Imps. Contending with Conor Grant’s efforts against Wimbledon and Swindon, it will surely be up there for goal of the season when the campaign ends.

George Cooper – LWB, 7.

It was a funny game for the wing-back. Perhaps a little lucky to have kept his place after a dire display on Tuesday against his old club, Cooper showed he still has some magic in him with a beautifully whipped cross straight onto the head of Luke Jephcott for the opening goal. He was also involved in the second, delivering the free-kick into the box which was cleared out for Reeves’ stunning goal.

That said, his general level of display was perhaps still a little lacking at times. His defending was the weakest of the midfielders and he didn’t show for passes as much as Joe Edwards on the other side. He has encouraging signs to take from his performance but some areas for improvement too.

Frank Nouble – ST, 6.

It was in truth a fairly quiet game for the big striker. Certainly in the first half, he rarely got on the ball. In the second, he was more involved and didn’t do a lot wrong. Perhaps he deserves a higher score as he didn’t exactly make any mistakes, he just didn’t do a lot generally. Credit can be given to his movement, which can be useful in occupying defenders, if nothing else.

He will be fighting for the assist to his name but if he’s honest, I don’t think he can say he meant it. Still, a couple more ‘mistakes’ like that and Argyle will be laughing.

Luke Jephcott – ST , 7.

Just how many millions is this kid gonna end up making Argyle? I hate to think of such a good player leaving us when his Argyle career has only just got going and he’s establishing such a connection with the (albeit distant) fanbase. The fact remains though, that if he keeps up this kind of form, he can make money for the club that could have us set for the next five years.

He was really rather good again today, quite aside from the now expected poacher’s finish for his goal. It’s a myth that all he’s about is goalscoring. He’s relentlessly busy, constantly pressing opposing defenders and forcing them back up the pitch. I envy the 2,000 who will get to see him play in the flesh for Argyle on Saturday. Sadly I’m not sure how many more appearances he has left.

Substitutes.

Pantuche Camara – RCM, 8.

Whilst Grant had a solid enough game, he was exceeded by the man who replaced him in the second half. Argyle really needn’t have worried about losing Antoni Sarcevic this summer. Camara does everything that Sarcevic did and he does it better too. He drove Argyle up the pitch at a time where we could so easily have sat back and his use of the ball was immaculate. Ryan Lowe has once again been given a real selection headache for the two CM spots.

Jerome Opoku – LWB, N/A.

Once again tried at left-wing-back after a prolonged spell at CB, he did the job as a more defensive option to see the game out. He did get booked giving away a free-kick, but made no other mistakes of note.

Ryan Hardie – ST, N/A.

Try as he might, it just isn’t happening for him in front of goal, is it? He once again got himself into a good position but couldn’t put it away. We can at least take solastce from the fact that at least he’s getting in the right positions still, even if he’s a mile away from the confidence boost he needs.

Argyle engulfed by perfect Fleetwood storm

It’s been a while since we experienced the emotions that only a diabolical Argyle away performance can provide. The Greens are yet to win away from Home Park in the league this season, but they’ve often looked good in some of those games despite the results. Think about the first halves against Wigan and Lincoln, the second period against Hull, or the attacking talent on show against Wimbledon.

This, however, was not one of those occasions. Plymouth Argyle’s 5-1 defeat at Fleetwood was just as abysmal as the scoreline suggests. A shambles at the back was combined with a dreadful toothlessness in attack to deliver a most horrific performance. Indeed, it’s probably on par with last season’s trip to Exeter as one of the worst displays since Ryan Lowe took charge at Argyle.

And the manager himself wasn’t blameless – far from it. Lowe’s setup doomed Argyle to defeat right from the start, as all of the issues that have harmed the Greens this season came to the fore in one dismal afternoon.

Set up to fail

Lowe and Argyle’s scouting team really ought to have had a grasp on Fleetwood’s style of play. All season, they’ve been experts at turning over possession and setting up to attack teams on the counter. It’s baffling, therefore, that Lowe’s team selection seemed to play directly into the hosts’ hands.

Argyle ultimately had far too many holes in their spine for the requirements of the fixture. In lining up with Conor Grant in the deep midfield position, they didn’t provide themselves with the defensive solidity and covering required against a team so dangerous when turning over possession. It’s no surprise that Lowe switched things up after just ten minutes, brining on Tyrese Fornah for Panutche Camara, and pushing Grant further upfield. Though as it turns out, it was already too late.

Argyle’s problems were compounded by a leadership void at the back – where have we seen that before? This is perhaps a harsher criticism to throw in Lowe’s direction. After all, Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Jerome Opoku have been working well together in recent weeks, with the latter scoring his first goal for the club against Portsmouth on Monday. But it was never likely to work here.

With Opoku in the centre of defence, Argyle had no vocal leadership coming from such an important position. He resembled a lost sheep at times, so often caught out of position and not vocal enough to get Watts and Aimson to cover. It all goes back to the idea of selections based on opponents. Opoku is a useful player to have when Argyle are likely to dominate possession; he completed 100% of his passes over 90 minutes against Swindon as Argyle built brilliantly from the back. But Fleetwood away was never going to be his game.

All of this was the perfect setup for Fleetwood to overrun Argyle. The Greens have struggled against the high press all season, and that’s exactly how their hosts tried to hurt them from the first whistle. Argyle coped at first, perhaps unsurprisingly given all the technical players in defensive positions, but it would never last. And as soon as Fleetwood did win it high up the pitch, after four minutes from Camara’s error, they scored. It was always likely to be the way.

It was a problem entirely of Argyle’s own making, and completely foreseeable. The Greens had 59.5% of possession in the first half, with 364 touches to their opponents’ 271. They completed 221 passes in that time, which was 93 more than Fleetwood. But who had the better chances? Fleetwood were more than happy to let Argyle have the ball, press smartly, and tear Lowe’s side apart on the counter.

Straight from kick off, a massacre ensued.

Mistakes still prevalent

Two of Argyle’s major flaws this season have been dealing with the high press and scattered individual errors. We’ve touched on the first, but that’s not a feature of every game. After all, not every side sets up to press from the start – look at Northampton. However, the rate of individual errors has a constant, significant worry.

In truth, the Greens have been partial to the occasional blunder all season. From the first away day at Wimbledon when Aimson dallied on the ball, right up to the draw against Portsmouth on Monday when Watts and Fornah had their own brain fades. Argyle have been plagued by cock-ups, and nothing demonstrated that better than those 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon.

We’ve already touched on Camara’s error for the first, but Argyle made sure they weren’t done there. The second goal in particular saw a catalogue of errors, with Opoku caught in no-mans land defending against nobody in particular, and Mike Cooper letting slip what ought to have been a comfortable take at Callum Camps’ feet. Cooper also slipped to make Wes Burns’ finish easier for the third, but that was more unfortunate than idiotic, and the danger really ought to have been dealt with before Burns went clean through.

We’re not done. Fleetwood’s fourth goal also saw an old problem come to the fore, with Scott Wootton and Frank Nouble beaten so easily in the air. But the fifth was possibly the worst of the lot. Byron Moore, under no pressure at the back post, cleared the ball straight into the path of Camps to slam the ball home. It was honestly the perfect assist, similar to Fornah’s error against Portsmouth but somehow worse in execution. Had it not been so tragic, it would’ve been hilarious.

It’s such a frustrating issue that keeps rearing its ugly head. These players aren’t terrible. In fact, they’ve all shown across their time at Argyle that they have a lot to offer. But if the silly mistakes aren’t cut out, these results will happen.

Reaction needed

Even in games where Argyle’s defence has looked shaky this season, the attack has always looked a threat, but even that was lacking on Saturday. The choice of personnel may have had a role in that too, particularly the persistence with Frank Nouble, who had no shots, won only 17% of his aerial battles and completed just 8 passes across the 90 minutes.

I could go on a little more with Argyle’s toothlessness on Saturday, but I’ve already wasted enough of your time. So instead, I’ll simply say that a reaction to this display is desperately needed. And soon.

Ryan Lowe’s record of having never lost two league games in a row at Argyle is under serious threat. The 5-1 defeat is a big mental setback, and a trip to Peterborough could hardly be coming at a worse time – they’ll be after a reaction too after they relinquished their lead at the top of League One following defeat to Blackpool at the weekend. There’s also the question of selection. One presumes Hardie and Jephcott will be straight back in, but who plays in defence? Canavan for Opoku would be the obvious choice, but the former’s red card on Saturday and subsequent suspension was the cherry on top of a particularly unpalatable cake.

It’ll no doubt be tough, but dealing with adversity has been a staple of Argyle under Lowe. They’ve demonstrated their bouncebackability in the past, and whilst Saturday was awful, the promise of better days to come is enough to keep us enthused.

Do Plymouth Argyle have a second half issue?

Plymouth Argyle dropped two points against Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Of that there can be no doubt. Having had the game in the palm of their hands against a fairly poor Wigan side, Argyle lost control, lost their lead, and found themselves hanging on at times. Either team could have nicked it, and 1-1 feels like a fair result, but Argyle ought to have had the quality and tactical nous to put the game to bed.

It’s the second time in a week that Argyle have let a good half time position slip in the second period. On Tuesday, the Greens went in level at the break against a strong Lincoln outfit, before their hosts took control right from the restart. Add in the dodgy period against Northampton which also came in the second half, and the late collapse against Leyton Orient that always seems to crop up in these articles, and you do begin to wonder whether Argyle have an issue with keeping up their level of performance for the whole 90 minutes.

Certainly, Argyle could do with stringing two good halves of football together soon, and winning comfortably before an annoying issue turns into a notable problem.

A game of two halves

Call me a massive snob (or worse), but I often find that cliched “one half good, one half bad” style of analysis a little lazy. Because of course two successive halves of football are unlikely to be the same. In any match, the 15-minute interval can curb any momentum, allow teams to replenish their energy and, perhaps most pertinently, allow a manager to communicate any tactical changes to their entire team. There’s a reason when one team drops a stinker for 45 minutes, the pundits clamour to claim they “can’t be that bad in the second half.”

There is no need, however, for one half of football to be the polar opposite of the other. That’s what we saw at the weekend, and indeed in some of the games previously referenced. The scoreboard and the stats all indicate a power shift right from the start of the second half. Take a look at this:

Plymouth Argyle First Half Second Half
Possession (%) 53% 43%
Touches 313 246
Passes Completed 191 109
Pass Success (%) 80% 73%
Aerials Won 11 5
Aerials Won (%) 73% 33%
Tackles Won 7 10
Lost Possession 3 10

There’s plenty to take in there (and don’t worry, we’ll be doing just that) but for now, those stats seem to speak for themselves. After the break, Argyle had less of the ball, did less with it, and failed to carry out some of the basics they had so successfully in the first half. The result? Wigan suddenly controlling the game, forcing Argyle into more defensive actions such as winning tackles, and at times looking like the most likely victors.

It’s important to remember that this all came from Argyle controlling the encounter, and not for the first time. With that in mind, Ryan Lowe and his coaching staff really ought to be working to get to the bottom of it; a successful season could be dependent on that.

Why did it happen?

It’s one of those questions to which there can be no single answer. There are a myriad of single incidents and reasons that can explain why Argyle weren’t able to keep their standards up for the full game on Saturday, and it will be an amalgamation of those incidents and reasons that can ultimately be held responsible. Credit must indeed go to the hosts – they recovered from a dire first half display by getting dangerous players like Kal Naismith on the ball more often and showing an increase in energy to mop up more second balls.

That being said, there are still areas of Argyle’s performance we can pinpoint as leaving plenty to be desired. Let’s go back to our stats table – we can see in the second half that Argyle had fewer touches, fewer completed passes and a lower pass success rate than they did in the first. That demonstrates that the Greens had the ball less often, though we can obviously already come to that conclusion with a look at the possession stats. What’s truly telling is that, when they finally had it, Argyle were much worse with the ball.

There’s certainly an argument that Argyle’s second half showing can be put down to mentality. More specifically, a state of panic that engulfed Argyle as Wigan got on top is reflected in the stats.

The lower pass success rate, for instance, can be attributed to the fact that a lot of those attempted ‘passes’ were hopeful long punts in an attempt to relieve pressure, rather than the crisp passes along the floor we witnessed before the break.

Look at the stats on aerial duels – a success rate of 73% dropping to 33% looks alarming in itself, but perhaps a more important aspect is the nature of those duels. In the first half, just 13% of Argyle’s aerial battles were “offensive aerials” – occasions upon which Argyle were fighting for the ball in the air when they themselves played it forward. That figure rises to 40% for the second half, so whilst Argyle were still fighting off more Wigan long balls than vice versa, Argyle’s strikeforce had much more to do in the air as the game drew to a close.

But isn’t that just a sign of Argyle’s willingness to get forward? Not really. Remember, Argyle looked much more of a threat in the first half (13% offensive aerials) than they did in the second (40% offensive aerials). What the stat does demonstrate is that the method of attack later in the game was much more rushed, much more panicked, and much less effective. Only one of those offensive aerials was won all through the second half (by Frank Nouble), so more often than not, it was a sure-fire way to give the ball back to Wigan. Cue more pressure on the back three. It was never sustainable.

A mental issue? A tactical one? A leadership void without Niall Canavan at the back? You decide. As I say, it’s probably an element of all three and more.

Is it that bad?

So, do Argyle have a second half issue? Sorry to be awkward, but yes and no. Argyle’s second half performances across the last few weeks have been flimsy; that’s unquestionable. However, rather than it simply being an issue of failing to perform after the break, the problem is centred far more around how Argyle have gone about holding their leads. It just so happens that, most of the time, those leads have been held going into the second half.

Let’s not forget, Argyle themselves have also been able to demonstrate the opposite. Against Hull, the Greens were on the back foot for much of the first half and went in behind, before coming out fighting in the second and almost stealing a point. There was no talk of tired legs or panic in the second half that day, because the game situation itself was different to start with.

There’s also perhaps a sense of perspective that needs to be found when assessing the magnitude of the problem. Without doubt, Saturday’s result was frustrating, and I’ll always maintain that Argyle should have won the game. But Lowe’s side still gained a point, and still find themselves in the top half in their first season back in League One.

How much more can we ask for? Many Argyle fans would have happily accepted a mid-table season before the campaign got started, and that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Despite the little annoyances here and there, it’s a far cry from the dire League One starts under Derek Adams. And even though Argyle’s squad has been depleted by COVID protocols, they have still been able to show they can be a force at this level.

Now the dust has settled, and the initial frustration has died down, I think we can say that the current situation is more than satisfactory.

Player Ratings: Plymouth Argyle 2-1 Northampton

Plymouth Argyle snatched a late winner against Northampton Town to move the club into the play-off places. Kelland Watts tapped in at the back post after George Cooper’s corner evaded everyone, including the goalkeeper, to deliver the three points that Argyle deserved – and nearly threw away – after dominating 80 minutes of this game.

Northampton were genuinely poor in this game – you can see where their fans are not content at the moment and the side is struggling at the bottom of the division. They defended in numbers but Argyle still had chances to extend their lead. The Cobblers had a ten minute surge on the hour mark, yielding their goal and their best chance, but otherwise their attack was very flat and Argyle were comfortable.

Mike Cooper, GK – 7

Cooper’s place in the team could perhaps have been slightly under threat following the disastrous week in London that saw us ship 7 goals in just two games, with the young keeper himself not covering himself in glory. An improved performance against Shrewsbury secured his spot and since then he has gone from strength to strength. His distribution today (one scuffed ball aside) was largely good and he made one fantastic save, tipping a close range header over the bar at 1-0 up. Overall, he looks gradually more assured with each passing game.

An understated positive attribute is his tendency to tip shots away from goal or out to a corner, if he is unable to catch them. Very rarely do you see him parry it out to an opponent, as Matt Macey was so often guilty of the last time we were in this league. Long may his improvement continue.

Will Aimson, RCB – 7.

Aimson put in another solid display on the right side of defence but he didn’t quite demonstrate the total dominance we know he’s capable of. He did most of the basic stuff right. His aerial success was perfectly capable and he was part of the patient build-up play that saw Argyle play the ball out from the back well through most of the game. The defence came under a lot of pressure from Northampton who, especially in the first half and he did do well to withstand it without panic.

Critics will maybe say he misjudged Northampton’s first goal, trying too hard to show his man down the and ultimately leaving Cooper exposed one vs one. However, this is a bit harsh. He was left exposed by Byron Moore and was always up against it to stop the man.

Niall Canavan, CB – 7.

Canavan was barely troubled for the majority of the match. Only in Northampton’s 10-minute spell did he have to face any sort of attacking threat. Could he have done better for the goal? Possibly, but there should also be credit to the attacker who finished very well across Michael Cooper from a tight angle on the move. Canavan will think the he should have got tighter to him, but doing so might have increased the risk of a trip and penalty, or the striker finding a better shooting opportunity. Otherwise, he set Argyle’s tempo nicely, keeping the team calm in possession while winning headers with ease against a relatively small Northampton front-line.

Kelland Watts, LCB – 8. Player of the Match.

Watts picks up his first player of the match award for Argyle and rightly so after a strong performance that he capped with his second goal for the club to seal all three points. His start to the season may have been wobbly, but since then he’s retained his place and improved alongside Canavan, who has acted as a calming presence in that back-three.

Arguably most impressive is his strength bringing the ball out from the back; you can see that he’s played further forward in his youth. His dribbling and passing helped Argyle break down a deep Northampton defence. Just take Mayor’s flying shot from 25 yards that just beat the top corner. Had it not been for Watts’ overlapping run on the edge of Northampton’s penalty area, Mayor would not have had the space for such an effort.

Tyreese Fornah, CDM – 6.

After his accomplished display that saw him win rave reviews against Burton, Fornah was not quite so good against the Cobblers. He wasn’t bad by any means. As Argyle pushed and pushed to break Northampton down, he did the simple stuff well in terms of picking up loose balls and distributing them quickly to a more attacking player. He was mostly solid enough defensively too, intercepting a lot of clearances.

His issues, if anywhere, were in the Northampton’s third of the pitch. There were times when he could have dropped back and provided more defensive support as Northampton piled forward during their ten minute blitz. Additionally, when he did get back, he misjudged the flight of the ball a couple of times in the first half. Thankfully, these errors did not lead to chances but on another day they perhaps could have done. He’s a player with potential but some improvement is needed.

Byron Moore, RWB – 4.

Moore had a bit of a funny game. For the first half (and during the start of the second) he was largely pretty quiet, only really involving himself in a few basic passing moves. His crossing, when relied upon, was unexceptional and he didn’t try anything particularly adventurous in terms of taking on his man.

Where he was most conspicuous by his absence was in his defending. For at least two, possibly three of the Northampton chances in their purple patch, the wing-back was nowhere to be seen, meaning the attacks largely came down our right side. This is an aberration for him as he usually offers strong defensive support and it’s one he will hopefully recover from as time goes on.

Conor Grant, RCM – 7.

Another game, another assist. That’s three in the league and four in all competitions, to go with his two goals, and another moment of real quality. His first-time left footed cross found Nouble eight yards out, unmarked, to head home at the back post. Superb. Unfortunately, Grant had to come off at half-time, presumably because he was injured. The centre-mid wasn’t too involved coming up to the half-time whistle, but he came up trumps and delivered the moment of quality that broke the deadlock for the Greens.

Danny Mayor, LCM – 7.

It was, to some extent, a game of two halves for Mayor. In the first half, he was our best player by a significant distance. Borderline unplayable in spells, his electric movement at its very best was more than enough to gain Argyle several yards of territory. That’s to say nothing of his work rate. He come out of the blocks like a greyhound and surely covered more ground than anyone else on the pitch. It wasn’t quite the perfect half. There were still occasions where he held onto the ball a little too long. By and large though, he was a master of chaos who was the key player in our first half dominance.

After the interval, whilst not exactly bad, he was a lot less cautious. He was too keen to go back with the ball where a forward pass was available and he didn’t attempt any of his trademark runs.

George Cooper, LWB – 7.

Arise, assist king. Minutes left, corner on the right, Cooper assist, three-points in the bag. Yes, Northampton’s keeper should have punched it clear but was obstructed by his own teammate (or maybe he just couldn’t get to it) and Watts applied the finishing touch. Cooper looked dangerous before then anyway. His cross into Nouble was headed over, from which the striker should have done better – he stooped too low and got underneath it. He also struck a beautiful free-kick from 30 yards that was dipping under the cross-bar, until Northampton’s keeper just got fingertips to push it inches over the bar.

Luke Jephcott, ST – 5.

It was a much quieter game for Jephcott who wasn’t quite able to keep his fantastic record of a game per game going, but still showed some promising signs. It was inevitably harder for him because of the way Northampton defended. They sat DEEP, often with all eleven men behind the ball. With that, a Fox in the Box like Jephcott was always unlikely to be able to find the space he really needed to be able to poach goals from nothing.

He still offered some positive signs. A couple of decent flicks and he won a free-kick through good use of his body but for the most part he wasn’t really involved.

Frank Nouble, ST – 7.

A much better game for Nouble. He has continued his good form in the month of October after a September that was a bit more hit and miss. It’s often a bit tricky to put your finger on exactly what he offers this Argyle side. He’s not a typical Fox in the Box striker, the type that Ryan Lowe reveres and indeed was himself. Nor is he a conventional target man in the mould of Ryan Taylor or Mickey Evans.

He’s a battering ram who uses his body to offer a more direct option. He’s strong, quick and clever in the runs that he makes. He’ll often provide a flick on, or an option to pass the ball to when he’s in direct competition with a defender. Unlike other strikers, you can bet on him winning most physical duels. There is an argument to be made that Argyle will be better served by a Hardie/Jephcott combination when the former finds health and form again. But for now, Nouble offers a different dimension and one that is definitely useful. He got a very well taken goal too, so full credit to him for that.

Substitutes.

Ben Reeves, RCM – 6.

Reeves came on at half-time for the presumably injured Grant and largely had a solid enough half, although not, perhaps, one that lived up to the expectations fans may have had based on his previous appearance in green. He did a lot of simple stuff well, such as ball retention but (like Mayor after the break) was perhaps on occasion a little too hesitant to take risks or to release control of the ball. He is clearly capable of excellent creativity but sometimes opts for the safe option a little too much.

That’s often not a bad thing. We all get annoyed by those fans who yell ‘FORWARRRRRD’ at every chance, right? But there is perhaps a danger that Reeves sometimes goes too far the other way. Still, we all know what he’s capable of on his day.

Jerome Opoku, LWB – N/A.

Just the one touch of the ball for Opoku, who came on with minutes left after Watts gave Argyle the lead. Until then, Dom Telford was set to enter the fray to help Argyle fight for the win, only for Lowe to throw the defender on to protect the lead with so little time left.

Timmy Abraham, ST – N/A.

Abraham came on for the quiet Jephcott to help Argyle scrap for all three points, but he only managed four touches of the ball. When he was coming off the bench, he must have had thoughts of getting the winning goal on debut, but he will be slightly disappointed with his personal efforts given he wasn’t able to impact the game.

Player of the Month: September 2020

Firstly, apologies it’s so late. I know we’re in mid-October and have already played three games this month, but I was tinkering with the formula that generates these scores.

Second, as I was just saying, the formula has changed (if you’re not interested, just skip straight to the scores). In the past two years it took an average score, weighted it against appearances, and added a player of the match bonus. That formula put too much emphasis on average performances.

A player who gets 6s and 7s every week would average out at the same rating as a player who got a 9 one week and a 4 the next. Yet, that 9 rating implies a player made a match-winning impact and that should be rewarded. So now, players who score higher ratings will receive higher scores, even if their average rating is the same as a player who gets consistent middling-scores.

Third, EFL Trophy matches will no longer be included in these scores (though League Cup and FA Cup matches will) since rotation is so heavy on both sides that it seems an unfair influence on rankings.

Forth (and last), I’ll provide an update on our player rankings next week, then every two weeks after that to give an idea of how we’re ranking the most impactful players on Argyle’s season.

Player of the Month: Danny Mayor (11.61)

Don’t worry – we’re as surprised as you! Before putting the numbers into the calculator, we were mulling over whether Conor Grant could be beat.

But – it’s important to note that while Grant picked up two goals and two assists in August, his overall performances weren’t of the same standard in every game and his average score against Blackpool dragged him down.

Meanwhile, Mayor put in strong showings in both cup matches and ultimately that clinched it for him. Excluding the cup matches against QPR and Leyton Orient – in which he picked up his only goals and assists in the month – he and Grant would tie as player of the month.

I’m not sure why I’m making excuses for Mayor to be honest. Perhaps it’s to fit in with the narrative that Mayor should be doing more, scoring more goals and making more assists. But goals and assists aren’t the only important elements in the game and Mayor does do a huge amount in enabling Argyle to play the way they do.

2. Will Aimson (10.31)

Will Aimson takes an unexpected second spot despite missing the final game of the month and making a horrific mistake that eventually cost Argyle a point against AFC Wimbledon.

However, his surprise entry at second is the first example of a player benefiting from the new scoring mechanism that weights the score in favour of players who made match-winning impacts. His opening two games, against QPR and Blackpool, were his two best displays, and arguably match-winning displays given some of his interventions. That’s not to forget that he provided the assist for Luke Jephcott’s winner as Argyle took all three points.

Defenders rarely score highly in people’s minds. They’re usually overlooked because people remember goals, assists and defensive mistakes. It might already be forgotten just how good Aimson was against QPR and Blackpool, and that’s partly why I enjoy this scoring mechanic so much. Players efforts that would otherwise be neglected are instead remembered.

3. Conor Grant (9.86)

Interestingly, Grant is the one we thought would be winning this! Yet, here he is in third. More than anything, that’s the result of a poor display against Blackpool when he was subbed off early, injured. His absence against Orient also limited his score this month.

Yet, Grant ranking third is a surprise in another way: who thought he’d be ranked that highly for the first player of the month of the season? How many expected him to secure his spot ahead of Camara, who was going the way of becoming a fan-favourite before the season had even begun.

You might be thinking: if Aimson got a bonus for his “match-winning” display against Blackpool, why didn’t Grant get similarly high ratings for his “match-winning” involvements against QPR, as well as his goals against Wimbledon and Shrewsbury. The answer is that his average rating against QPR was 6.7, with all of us agreeing that he was not a stand-out player thoughout the match and did not deserve one of the highest ratings despite providing a sumptuous cross to set up Nouble’s winner.

Similarly, his average rating against Shrewsbury was only 7.3, despite scoring an (albeit heavily deflected) equalising goal. The only game he earned a bonus for was against Wimbledon, where he put in a man-of-the-match performance. Yet, his average rating was just too low to overtake Aimson. I hope this makes sense.

Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree. Then again, maybe Grant isn’t as highly rated as I am making him out to be: it’s hard to know sometimes.

4. Michael Cooper (9.59)

Cooper might be another surprise top four ranking, alongside Will Aimson, and given some of the goals he let in against Wimbledon and Orient, plus QPR’s second. Again, like Aimson, his man-of-the-match performance against Blackpool is what elevated him so high with so few others playing every game in the month. He also made a string of good saves against QPR, it should be noted.

In the end, his significant efforts, which guaranteed Argyle’s only league victory of the month, were enough to net him a top four spot.

5. Niall Canavan (9.28)

Amazingly, Niall Canavan sneaks in past George Cooper by 0.03 points despite making only one start and one substitute appearance. That probably says a lot about the average rating of the rest of the team…

I mean… Our model factors in the number of appearances. That is to say, a player who only appeared in two of five games is not expected to beat a player who, like George Cooper, appeared in all five. Then again, the average rating is also important – incentivising higher scores rather than more appearances, and that’s how Canavan did it.

His first appearance off the bench against Wimbledon rapidly settled down a twitchy Argyle defence, showing off his usual, outwardly nonchalant style, with his goal minutes later bring Argyle back into the game at 4-3. He then came into the team against Shrewsbury and helped Argyle hold the opposition at bay relatively comfortably, save for a 20-yard deflected shot.

He’s secured his place in the team ever since and the entire defence looks much more stable already. Put another way: Argyle conceded a goal every 42 minutes (excluding the EFL Trophy) before Canavan entered the pitch against Wimbledon, ever since the number has more than doubled to once every 98 minutes.

How we calculate the score

Each player receives a match rating from 1-10 and one player from each match receives a man of the match bonus. Players who played fewer than 15 minutes of a match do not receive a match rating unless they made a significant impact. The players are scored by a variety of individuals who have witnessed every match this season.

The scores are aggregated and weighted against the number of appearances, before the man of the match bonus is added. In this way, we are ranking the impact of a player across the season. The more often they have played and the better they have performed, the more of an impact they have made on the team’s season, and therefore the higher they rank.

The formula also adds weight to higher scores. A player who gets 6s and 7s every week would average out at the same rating as a player who got a 9 one week and a 4 the next. Yet, that 9 rating implies a player made a match-winning impact and that should be rewarded. So, players who score higher ratings receive higher scores, even if their average rating is the same as a player who gets consistent middling-scores.

This way of ranking players enables us to be more impartial when speaking of the impact made by each player across a season, as it significantly reduces:

  • recency bias (players who hit a spell of form often have their season-wide impact overstated because of their recent performances).
  • statistical bias (players with lots of goals or assists relative to their position tend to be rated above those whose performance levels have been consistently superior but are not involved in goal-scoring, often because it is hard to visualise a player’s impact across a season without resorting to these stats. It explains why attackers, or defenders involved in a high-number of goals, predominantly receive most recognition throughout a season – we’re looking at you, Garth Crooks).
  • conformation bias (fans who favour some players tend to fixate on their positive performances while neglecting to factor in their bad performances when ranking them across a season).